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Friday, November 2, 2018

Six reasons why we must get rid of IIT-JEE - Daily O

The entrance process is such that IITs produce unidimensional graduates who may not even be interested in the subjects they gave many years of their life to.

 |  8-minute read |   28-10-2018

We should get rid of the IIT-JEE. Given the iconic status of the IITs and the resulting craze for its famed entrance exam in India, this statement may come across almost as blasphemy.
But IITs are scientific institutions, and the tradition of science is to hold nothing sacred and examine everything through the less of evidence.

Radical as it may sound, this sentiment has been gaining ground of late. The HRD ministry mooted a proposal to radically reform the IIT-JEE by even dismantling the JEE-Advanced, the flagship exam for the IITs. That proposal, however, was shot down by the IIT council a couple of months back. This rigidity to re-examine, introspect and improve oneself is alarming, and that is indeed the root cause of many of the flaws of this celebrated exam.

The test has been gamed by coaching centers
When a high-stakes exam, watched closely by millions of people, is not redesigned for years, the stakeholders manage to decipher it completely.

Coaching centers have figured out the typical problems given in the exam, built a library of similar problems, and approaches to solving them. (Photo: YouTube/screengrab)

Lakhs of students take the IIT-JEE every year. It is the gateway to the dream destination for those students, the source of the ultimate bragging right for millions of their parents, and the fountain of unlimited riches for the coaching centres. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that the exam is watched closely and patterns of its questions analysed in great detail.

On top of that, the exam has not seen any radical redesign. Originally a single-phase exam, it was split between JEE-Mains and JEE-Advanced some years ago, but the main focus of the exam — testing high-level problem-solving abilities based on quantitative sums drawn from Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics — has remained the same over the past 30 years or so.

With so many interested parties avidly scrutinising the broadly unchanged exam for the past few decades, is it really a surprise that the exam no longer remains a test for raw brainpower?
The coaching centers have already figured out the typical problems given in the exam, built a huge library of similar problems, and approaches to solving them. They start drilling those problems and solutions in the students’ head from early years, often from as early as Class 8.

So what was once a test of intelligence (of the quantitative kind, admittedly) has become more of a test of how much money you can spend to access the best coaching centers, and how early you start your single-minded pursuit of this dream (or nightmare?).

The test has become so difficult so as to render it meaningless
If too many students compete for an exam and start preparing from an early age, it breeds an arms race. The same level of questions that separated students of different abilities ten years ago will cease to do so now — because everyone is simply more prepared to handle those questions. The questions need to become increasingly difficult to differentiate between students.
This is compounded by the fact that IIT-JEE tests skills in a narrow area — quantitative problem solving in Physics, Chemistry, and Math. It is possible for a student to attain a high level of mastery in a narrow area. With so many students attaining near-perfect competence in one narrow domain, the test must, over the years, become much, much more difficult to retain its ability to select — which is exactly what happened over the years.

If too many students compete for an exam and start preparing from an early age, it breeds an arms race. (Photo: PTI/file)

Instead, if the test evaluated wider (and possibly unrelated) skill sets — for example, quantitative skills, reading skills and social skills — it would have been difficult for students to master all of those to a certain level of perfection; and differentiation would have been possible through even a moderately challenging test.

It breeds unidimensional professionals
As a result of focusing so narrowly during the formative years of learning, millions of students are ignoring important skills needed for success at the workplace and in life.
In IIT-factories of Kota, and in similar cram-schools all over India, students are learning Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics at the exclusion of all other skills necessary for success.
In future, they are often handicapped by an inability to read, write or speak at a level needed for professional success. They often lack nuanced social and historical awareness needed to become vibrant members of the society. Working solo with their textbooks for many years, they often underappreciate the value of teamwork and collaboration.
The comeuppance sometimes comes mid-career, when these unidimensional professionals cannot progress to managerial levels.
Sometimes, the day of reckoning comes sooner, as they get rejected in numerous interviews right at the beginning of their career due to the lack of ability to express themselves.
Sure, one can argue that many IITians become successful corporate leaders and entrepreneurs. However, that’s a tiny fraction of the graduates IITs churn out — most remain anonymous cubicle-dwellers in mid-level positions.

Students training for just one exam from early in life lack social and historical awareness needed to become vibrant members of the society. (Photo: PTI/file)

Given that the IITs pretty much get to choose the best from lakhs of school-leaving students, should we, as a nation, be happy with only a few success stories? Shouldn’t such ‘chosen elites’ have left a much stronger imprint, both in scientific domain and elsewhere?

The difficulty level of IIT-JEE makes studying in IIT redundant
To stay ahead of the coaching centers and to be able to differentiate between intensely prepared students, IIT-JEE now has to necessarily pose notoriously difficult sums to the aspirants. This simply meant that the level of sums posed have become more advanced, rather more inventive or creative.
While the exam theoretically stays within the prescribed syllabus, most of the problems posed in IIT-JEE are practically college-level sums. Even when I studied for IIT-JEE around 25 years back, the recommended Physics books for preparation were Fundamentals of Physics by Resnick and Halliday, and Problems in General Physics by I E Irodov: both college-level calculus-based physics books. I presume things have gotten only more difficult since then.
Now the question is: what is the value of a college education if you are expected to study a lot of college level stuff just to get there?

A college entrance exam should test interest
IIT-JEE fails miserably here. College admission processes in most advanced countries, notably in the US, check for the aspirant’s demonstrated interest in the college as well as the intended major. IIT-JEE, however, does nothing of that sort.
Lakhs of students, through unthinking herd mindset, pursue a dream that’s not really theirs. Many, after reaching their dream place, become disenchanted and end up switching careers to pursue MBA. For some, the frustration leads to drug-abuse. Some end up committing suicide. Even students who plod on and finish their degrees do not end up doing anything remotely related what they studied in IIT.

Such mismatches happen because unlike most other college admission processes, IIT-JEE restricts itself to a written exam, without any test of interest. Everyone knows that people are most productive when they work on areas that they are interested in. By not checking for this obvious area, IIT-JEE indirectly helps breed a discontent workforce.
For IITs, IIT-JEE is the hammer, and everything looks like a nail
I was delighted when a few IITs decided to offer a BS in Economics a few years back. Our society’s economic understanding is quite limited, which pulls us down. People from all strata of society fall for Ponzi schemes, unable to understand the relationship between risk and return. Most people do not appreciate the importance of copyrights and patents, hindering innovation and progress. In addition, common masses have a fetish for free goods that the government doles out, not knowing that there is no free lunch.

I thought an economics course at the IITs could go a long way to make our society more economically literate. However, that hope was soon belied, because I saw the selection process for this course is the same old IIT-JEE.
Yes — you heard it right, one has to master quantitative Physics, Chemistry and Math to be eligible to study economics, a discipline requiring vastly different skill sets.

Shouldn’t such ‘ elites’ have left a much stronger imprint, both in the scientific domain and elsewhere? (Photo: IIT Delhi's website)

Not only that, those Economics graduates need to study all the common first year engineering courses, including electrical circuits and mechanics of deformable bodies! Nothing can be more ill-conceived than that.

Solution: A standardised test
So, if IIT-JEE has outlived its utility, what could be the way forward? A clear solution is a standardised, skill-oriented exam like SAT or ACT. Almost all US universities accept SAT or ACT scores as one of their key admission criteria. Such a system will obviate the need for multiple selection processes and entrance examinations in India, reducing student burden significantly.
As such exams test a wide range of skills (reading, critical thinking, analysis of science and social sciences, problem solving, writing), it will also make our learning more skill-oriented.
We may argue that the cost of SAT is prohibitive for most Indians. If that is so, we can develop our own home-grown version. Sceptics may also reason that a standardised test like that does not test aptitude in subjects like Physics or Chemistry, so how will an elite engineering institute like IIT select students through such an exam?
Well, top-ranked scientific institutions of the world, including MIT and Caltech, use precisely this test to admit their students.
A person who is widely read, can communicate well through writing and can critically evaluate issues can become more successful as an engineer or scientist as opposed to one who has only a narrow mastery over a small range of subjects.
We Indians take our exams very seriously. The only way to get the nation to focus on skill building is to incorporate it into the exam system.
If we are really serious about addressing our skill-shortage, if we want our future generations to cope with the rapidly changing world, we must reform our exam system.
Radically, and urgently.